The Song Diaries
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[READ Quentin Harrison’s interview with Sophie Ellis-Bextor here]
A superb songwriter with an instantly identifiable vocal approach, Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s chameleonic career turns at retro-modernist disco, new wave and adult contemporary balladry unquestionably evoke her pop foremothers Donna Summer, Madonna and Kylie Minogue. Nothing encapsulates this more than her fifth long player, the appropriately titled Wanderlust (2014).
The record arrived during her second decade of activity—a crucial point for Ellis-Bextor—when a (mostly male) pack of critics in the British music press decided to mistakenly write the vocalist off. When the album rewarded her with respectable sales and strong reviews, she had the last laugh. Familia followed in 2016; it was a worthy and sumptuous successor to Wanderlust that gave the singer every right to take a break, if desired.
So, when it was tentatively announced that a singles collection was in the works after the accompanying tour for Familia concluded in 2017, many weren’t surprised.
But, in true Ellis-Bextor fashion, as the compilation took shape it quickly transformed into something more: enter The Song Diaries. Produced in collaboration with Ed Harcourt, The Feeling bassist (and Ellis-Bextor’s husband) Richard Jones and David Arnold, The Song Diaries charts Ellis-Bextor’s journey from frontwoman for theaudience to an engaging solo entity through seventeen reimagined tracks—nineteen on the vinyl pressing.
With just enough direction from Ellis-Bextor—and her compact production team—the respected string arranger Amy Langley is set loose on the established selections for The Song Diaries with stunning results.
For those aware of Ellis-Bextor’s music (singles or album sides), orchestral components—either real or facsimile—have always been at work in her material. Accordingly, the entries on The Song Diaries aren’t so much deconstructed as they are reworked to emphasize those existent orchestral elements in the pieces to begin with.
Consider “Heartbreak (Make Me a Dancer),” one of Ellis-Bextor’s stormiest floorfillers that served as the first single from her fourth album—and most dance music centered collection to date—Make a Scene (2011). Originally composed as an acidic, electro-pop groove with mock- violin touches, the frenetic programming finds itself swapped out for actual cascading strings. Even with the new organic instrumentation in place, the compositional integrity isn’t lost on “Heartbreak (Make Me a Dancer)” and neither is its emotional energy. If anything, the intensity of that energy is increased.
Throughout The Song Diaries, each song finds its mood heightened by these symphonic alterations. Intricate synth-sections are recast as mighty string beds on “Mixed Up World.” Elsewhere, robust brass pumps in the place of a power pop pulse on “Catch Me.” Then, of course, there is “Murder on the Dancefloor,” an instant standard upon its release in late 2001 due to its compositional recall of past and present disco-pop.
Ellis-Bextor delivers two makeovers for “Murder on the Dancefloor” on the LP. In its first version, it is spun into an uptempo ballad, trimmed with castanets and just enough percussion to lend it an airy, if spicy Latin feel. That aspect is expounded upon with the “orchestral disco version” (one of the two vinyl bonus tracks) with a kicking rhythm section that gives it a light, four-on-the-floor boost that teases out its vintage pre-Song Diaries vibes.
That same “band-meets-orchestra” slant is taken up a few notches with Ellis-Bextor’s cover of the 1977 Carol Williams chestnut “Love Is You.” Dutiful audiophiles will pick up that this jam was sampled on the Spiller and Ellis-Bextor club favorite “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love).” “Love Is You,” a swirling feast of throwback disco, is just one of the many majestic sonic set-pieces on The Song Diaries ideal for Ellis-Bextor’s rich, accented tone to rest in.
The scope of the musicianship on The Song Diaries is impressive. But, ultimately, as it has been with every Sophie Ellis-Bextor effort post-Read My Lips (2001), the record will impact most with those open enough to receive its charms. She needn’t worry though, The Song Diaries will find a home in the hearts of those discerning enough to enjoy having their pop perspectives reoriented by a woman that wields her artistic vision fearlessly.
Notable Tracks: “Heartbreak (Make Me a Dancer)” | “Love Is You” | “Mixed Up World” | “Murder on the Dancefloor”